Posted by: dacalu | 16 July 2017

Growth in Body and Spirit

Today, I had the honor of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Laurelhurst.  Here is the sermon I shared.


Collect (Prayer for the day)

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



Genesis 25:19-34 (Jacob and Esau)

Psalm 119:105-112 (“Your word is a lantern to my feet”)

Romans 8:1-11 (“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”)

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 (The Parable of the Sower)



Once again we find ourselves with passages about life and growth.
We’ve known each other for a while now;
	perhaps you know my motto on this.
When dealing with life metaphors in the Bible,
	we should always take them more literally.
So, in Matthew’s Gospel, we have a parable about our own spiritual life.
	In my opinion, it’s one of the more transparent parables.
	It appears in all three of the synoptic gospels.
	And in all three, Jesus spells out the meaning.

God is sewing the Word in our hearts, the good news of Christ Jesus.
	Why is it that the word grows and bears fruit for some, but not for others?
	Though the seed is the same, the ground is different.
	Though the word is the same, the hearts and minds are different.
Sometimes, the word does not even sink in.
	It sits there on the surface of our hearts.
	It finds no soil to sink into and so gets snatched away.
This seems very common to me.
	I know many who have been to church, read the bible,
	heard the word, but it means nothing to them.
Sometimes, the word finds a little bit of soil, 
a little piece of our hearts where it can grow,
but it cannot grow fast enough,
	and its roots can’t reach far enough,
	so it doesn’t stand up to the weather.
	The new plant fades away.
This also seems common to me.
	I know people who were enthusiastic Christians,
	but also Christians of convenience.
	Their faith was not part of their life.
	Or they identified very strongly with the church,
		but could not engage their heart, or their mind, or their soul.
	When their faith was tested by persecution or tragedy,
		they could not hold on to a relationship with God.
Sometimes the word finds soil,
	but it is not the only thing to grow within the heart.
	Other loves and other faiths choke it out.
	Jesus specifically mentions the love of wealth and power.
	That, too, is a plant – one that can outcompete love of God and neighbor.
This is perhaps the most common of all:
	when we truly have the option of deep faith,
	but find it too hard to choose love over control
		or attempted control of the world around us.

And, when everything goes, just right,
	the seed lands on good soil.
	It sinks in and grows and bears fruit.
	Not just a little, but enough to feed multitudes.

A couple caveats should be mentioned here.
While this is about something very literally growing within us,
	we must not read it too simply
	or pass on too quickly.
We should let it take root properly in our hearts.

I think it applies to the whole of our lives;
the word takes root in us, or it does not.
It also applies to parts of our lives;
	it may be that the word takes root in my heart, but not my mind, or vice versa.
	Most of us have different aspects of our lives
		and we can ask which have been fruitful, and which have not.
I would also note that Jesus nowhere says this is strictly our choice,
	whether we want to be good soil or rocky.
	Our will is a part of it.
	We have the power to weed and tend.
	We have the power to cultivate our hearts.
	But we each struggle with the patch of land we’ve been given, as well.
We have some sway in our garden,
	but we have sway in the gardens of others as well.
We play a role in the tilling and fertilizing,
	picking up rocks and spreading weeds.
Christians who speak only of planting seeds
	miss the depth and sophistication of our calling.
We live and work for our neighbors.
We bear fruit for our neighbors.
Just as we live by their labors.

Plant growth is an amazing and complicated process.
Did you know that almost no plant grows by itself?
What we think of as rich soil,
	involves countless bacteria and fungi,
	each contributing to the exchange of water and nutrients 
	between plant and environment.
One teaspoon of rich soil can contain more organisms
than there are people in the United States,
	thousands of species of bacteria,
	many yards of fungal filaments,
	not to mention thousands of tiny worms and insects.

We usually speak of an ecosystem as patch of land –
	a forest or a watershed, a swamp or a field –
	but an ecosystem can also be a tiny web of life
	smaller than your fingernail.
The God who made the stars also made tiny ecosystems
	nearly everywhere on the surface of the Earth.
Plants need nitrogen but are generally bad at getting it.
	They depend on fungi and bacteria to turn
		elemental nitrogen (N2) in the air into usable forms.
In a healthy forest, water and nutrients can be shared underground
	between different trunks, using a network of roots,
	but also shuttling staples through other organisms.

Soil is not a simple matter.
And the soil of our hearts,
	like the soil of our fields,
	is connected.
So, we can ask about how we enrich our own hearts,
	and the hearts of our neighbors.
And we can ask how we harm the soil
	in ways that harm the whole ecosystem.

I find it troubling when people sow discord.
	When they preach hatred, distrust, and fear,
		when they encourage selfishness,
		when they lie and cheat,
			encouraging you to expect and even do the same,
	these people are salting the soil.
	It may not hurt them in their own field in their own lifetime –
		usually it does, but even so –
	it may not harm them directly, but it poisons the ecosystem.
	All life is poorer.

The parable of the sower lays a burden upon us.
We are called to till and keep the garden.
	I mean this quite literally, after Genesis 2:15.
		One of our main purposes in life is to care for our ecosystem
		in ways that only humans can.
	I also mean it figuratively.
		We are asked to plant and water,
			to tend and harvest
			the ecosystem of human souls.
		We care for them, anticipate their needs,
			and cultivate the fruits of the spirit
			as God works in us light and life.
The church, like the bacteria and rhizomes,
	is responsible for shuffling nutrients back and forth between the trunks.
We care for souls and see that they live well together.

We know about our bodily goods
	and they cannot be ignored.
	We literally must give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty,
		space to the oppressed, light to those in darkness,
		and care to the sick.
	That mandate seems hard enough on its own,
		but it is only the beginning of our task.

We also speak of spiritual goods.
	They are less literal than food and water,
		but they are less abstract than you might think.
	Once we have an idea of spiritual growth,
		of the seeds and fruits of God’s Spirit growing within us,
		taking care of them becomes more obvious.
Rich soil of the heart happens when people have experienced
	faith, hope, and love.
They are virtues, but always communal virtues.
	It makes no sense to have faith, hope, or love alone.
	We must have faith IN, hope FOR, and love OF others.
	These virtues are shared from one soul to another.
		Being loved, we understand love and can learn TO love.
		We participate in faith, hope, and love,
			first passively, but then, as we come to understand,
			more and more actively.

A body is an organized composition made out of flesh.
A soul is body in the process of living.
And spirit – or breath or perhaps the Breath of God – is what activates souls.

Paul says “the body is dead; the spirit is life.”
Like any modern biologist,
	he knows that the flesh cannot hold together by itself.
	It needs breath and life to keep itself together.
		(We might say metabolism, 
while Paul would say soul,
		but we’re both talking about blood and breath,
life in action.)
The soul or the spirit holds the flesh together as a body.
What does it mean to be an organism,
	if it doesn’t mean you are more than a collection of flesh?
	You are a living, breathing, integrated thing.
	You do stuff in the world.

If you focus on the flesh, it will not hold together,
	because flesh just is. It does no work.
You must focus on that which enlivens the flesh.
Thus, the body is dead, but the spirit is life.
	He does not say that the spirit is alive, but that it is life itself,
	Specifically, in the context of the body.
That is how he can conclude with this:
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, 
he who raised Christ from the dead 
will give life to your mortal bodies also 
through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Alone we are nothing, we are dust and dirt.
When we maintain the ecosystem, when we act together in love,
	when the Spirit of God stirs up the dust,
	we become the soil in which life takes root.

And it all ties together, bodily and spiritual goods,
	because this is where we find ourselves,
		as physical organisms and as spiritual organisms,
		in community.
	We work together because we work together.


An academic note

For the brave of heart, I would like to add just a few words on flesh and spirit in Romans. This dichotomy seems to trip people up and it happens to be the subject of my current research. What exactly is Paul talking about? That’s been a subject of contention for two thousand years, but let me share with you my own understanding, in the hopes that it will be helpful.

Many in the Greek and Roman world, thought of our existence as a continuum, running from particular examples to universal principles. Matter and Form were not opposing armies, but part of a giant whirlwind. Matter simply means “the stuff of which a thing is made.” Meat is made of atoms, and organisms are made of meat, and communities are made of organisms. Matter isn’t a thing, it’s a relationship. Meat, or flesh, is the generic stuff of which animals are made. (“Tissue” might be a good scientific analog.)

A body is an organized composition made of flesh. This is exactly the way we use “body” for living things or “corpse” for dead things. It is shaped flesh. A “soul” is a body in the process of living – an active body. And “spirit” – or breath or perhaps the Breath of God – is what activates souls. (Spirit is the Latin word for breath.)

Paul may have been a Platonist. They thought that the spirit came first and drew matter to it, gradually moving the whole world from a state of disorganized stuff, to a state of perfect and animal-like harmony. Paul may have been more Epicurean. They thought that atoms came together in ways that led to organization. I suspect Paul was a Platonist – most early Christians were – but that is beside the point. Paul thought that the whole universe was moving from disorder and chaos (vanity and emptiness) to life and growth as an organized whole. Paul thought the cosmos groaned in travail, waiting to be born and grow into the full stature of Christ.

Paul says “the body is dead; the spirit is life.” Like any modern biologist, he knows that the flesh cannot hold together by itself. It needs breath and life to keep itself together. (We might say metabolism, while Paul would say nutrition or soul, but we’re both talking about blood and breath, water and nutrients moving around in an active body.) Spirit and soul, quite literally hold the flesh together as a body. What does it mean to be an organism, if it doesn’t mean you are more than a collection of flesh? You are a living, breathing, integrated thing. You do stuff in the world.


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